Centuries before some areas in Europe would consider women in the medical field, Africa already had female medical practitioners who were doing marvellously in the field.
Historians do tell the story of a woman in Athens in the 4th century BCE who travelled to Alexandria to practice medicine because she wasn’t allowed to do so in Athens.
Identified as Agnodice, she came back to Athens to practice as a doctor but had to do so disguised as a man. She would eventually be found out and be taken to court but was saved by her female patients who stormed the trial and asked that she be released. The laws in Athens were subsequently changed to enable women to practice medicine.
Interestingly, around this period, female physicians had already been known in Egypt when Merit-Ptah, who lived in Egypt during the Bronze Age, around 2,700 BC was said to be the royal court’s chief physician.
Having lived during the period of Egyptian architect Imhotep, much is not known about Ptah. Historians, however, agree that she is not only the first female doctor known by name but the first woman mentioned in the study of science.
She was immortalized by her son, who inscribed her title of “chief physician” by her image on her tomb near Saqqara, the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, around 19 miles south of modern-day Cairo.
Varying accounts state that as a chief physician, she might have been a teacher who even supervised males. She would have also attended to the king in the second Dynasty, though it is not known which king that would be.
Ancient Egypt has often been the main reference point when interpreting the past and experience of Africa. In ancient Egyptian history, much is not talked about of female physicians, as, of course, males dominated the medical field.
But the presence of female doctors like Ptah shouldn’t come as a surprise as “Egypt treated its women better than any of the other major civilizations of the ancient world,” according to James C. Thompson.
In other words, women were given the needed respect and held significant positions in Egypt’s history. Some of them were worshipped as gods and deities, including goddess Hathor, who presided over joy and fertility, and Neith, who was associated with the invention of birth, war and death.
Even Merit Ptah’s name is composed of the elements “mr,” meaning beloved, “t,” which indicates a female name, and “Pth,” the Egyptian god of craftsmen, who called the world into being. Merit Ptah literally means, “a woman beloved of Ptah.”
Besides, in ancient Egypt, science was tied to religion. Doctors were originally seen as ‘magicians’, “for the Egyptians believed that disease and sickness were caused by an evil force entering the body”, according to Egyptologist Barbara Watterson.
Nevertheless, medical practice in ancient Egypt was so advanced to the extent that “they understood that disease could be treated by pharmaceuticals, recognized the healing potential in massage and aromas, had male and female doctors who specialized in certain specific areas, and understood the importance of cleanliness in treating patients,” writes Joshua J. Mark in Ancient History Encylopedia.
He adds that despite their reliance on “supernatural assistance”, physicians in Egypt earned a lot of respect for their skills and were in high demand by the kings and nobility of other nations. Their works were also studied by famous physicians of Rome and Greece, including Hippocrates, who is described as the father of medicine.
Women like Ptah and Pesehet (c. 2500 BCE) who was known as ‘Lady Overseer of Female Physicians’ in Egypt also carved a niche for themselves in the field of medicine.